By

CJay Engel

October 23, 2019

The Burnhamite Theory of Power

James Burnham wrote one of the most important books on theory of political power. It is not normative, it does not explain what the state should do. It rather seeks to understand what power is actually like, and given this, what the actual preconditions are for combating power. It is an analysis of what might be called an Iron Law of state power. The book is The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom: A defense of political truth against wishful thinking.

Here is a quote, followed by my own reflection:

“The Machiavellians are the only ones who have told us the full truth about power. Other writers have at most told the truth only about groups other than the ones for which they themselves speak. The Machiavellian’s present the complete record: the primary objective, and practice, of all rulers is to serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege.
There are no exceptions. No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of goodwill, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders or businessman, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make of power.
Individual saints, exempt in individual intention from the law of power, will nevertheless be always bound to it through the disciples, associates, and followers to whom they cannot, in organized social life, avoid being tied.
Only power restrains power.  That restraining power is expressed in the existence and activity of oppositions. When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do.”

Political liberty is maintained by the strength of the mediating institutions; that is, by the quality, health, and social authority of units of power that act as a buffer between the individual and the central state.

The eradication of these mediating institutions places the naked individual direct against the hot steel of Power. Theory may demonstrate the justification of liberty, but only centers of power can confront power and therein actualize liberty.

The necessity of this dynamic repudiates the typical mentality held by those who think liberty can be achieved by the spirit of rebellion against custom, norms, kinship, religion, and history— these are elements preserved by the mediating institutions.

The history of centralization of power is a history of the state slowly overcoming the institutions which could ably confront its power. From family units to churches to education institutions to large land holders to decentralized governing bodies of inferior jurisdiction... the rise of the Total State came about by either extinguishing their influence or (in the case of American states) aligning their purposes with the vision of the central body.

Only power can confront power!

Any strategy toward recovery that ignores this law of political power does not deal in political reality and thus dooms itself. Politics itself is about opposition building and the creation of power blocks that, for whatever motivating reason (ideological or not), have the will to challenge other blocks of power. The more the units of power confront each other in political struggle, the better it is for liberty.

Liberty is an achievement of the balance of powers within a nexus of cascading levels of authority, it is not an achievement of self-empowerment, revolution by a collection of individuals, or persuading voters to “give freedom a chance.”

Voters don’t care about freedoms.

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

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